Various groups of Wahhabist Sunni Islam who promote jihad have become one of the most potent opponents of the Western world and of Western secularism. The most recent, and most ideologically pure and extreme, version of such Wahhabism is manifest in al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham, known in English as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL). ISIS has presumed itself as having re-established the Caliphate and promote their state as the only truly legitimate Islamic State. Perhaps one of the most disturbing elements of ISIS is how effective they have been at recruiting Westerners of both Muslim and non-Muslim origin to convert to their ideology, swear allegiance to the Caliphate, and participate in their terroristic regime. What would possess many young people, both men and women, to abandon relatively comfortable middle-class lives in the West in order to live in an impoverished war zone that seems to want to revert to medievalism? Why would anyone devote themselves to such ideologies and work to kill people whom they got to know well through work and in life, as seen in late 2015 in San Bernardino, California? What is the appeal of groups like ISIS?
Many are deceived by false promises and their own delusions. ISIS maintains a very professional and slick marketing campaign through social media and promises much they cannot deliver. Many would-be jihadists are rebelling from all they have seen and known; some are perhaps motivated by bloodlust, vainglory, or other base desires. And yet groups like ISIS provide an opportunity to join a community of “true believers”: some feel like members of ISIS truly care about them, and enjoy a sense of belonging, community, and camaraderie. ISIS is heavily apocalyptic; many people find it exciting to participate in the project that will bring the consummation of all things. Furthermore, ISIS provides an ideology which provides a set of answers to the questions people have in life and an invitation to participate in something greater than themselves. ISIS has rules and standards as opposed to the postmodern relativism which infects Western secularism.
As Christians we do well to denounce any rebellious spirit and the desire for bloodlust, vainglory, and other base desires as works of the flesh, inconsistent with God’s purposes in Christ (Galatians 5:19-21). Nevertheless, many of the other elements of ISIS’ appeal should already be manifest among Christians and used to better effect. Christians are to form the community of God’s people in Christ, loving each other, providing for each other, strengthening one another as fellow members of the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-13, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Everyone ought to feel welcome within the church and that they belong, for in Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian or Scythian, male or female, and God wishes for all to be saved (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Timothy 2:4). The Gospel message is inherently apocalyptic: the day of resurrection and judgment is near, Jesus could return at any time, Christians must live in perpetual readiness and exhort all people to the same (Matthew 24:37-25:46, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, 1 Peter 4:7-11). God has provided standards and rules by which to live in Jesus, to follow His ways and observe His commandments (1 John 2:3-6). Jesus is the ultimate answer: the truth, the way, and the life (John 14:6).
Let none be deceived: ISIS and its ilk are deluded. It has made a desert and proclaimed it paradise; its utopian fantasy has devolved into the living hell which befalls every utopian project. ISIS and its ilk lack true legitimacy; its ideology is in sharp contrast to the caliphates of the past; it has zealously committed itself to a self-proclaimed prophet who did no sign, promoted violence, and died without hope. In time ISIS will be consumed by the very forces it attempts to unleash in the world; it will be overtaken with violence just as it lived by violence (Matthew 26:52).
Unfortunately it has proven all too easy for groups like ISIS to make Christianity seem equivalent to our decadent, postmodern, relativist Western secular society. We must stand firm in the Gospel of Christ against the many corrosive philosophies and ideologies of Western secularism: consumerism, relativism, statism, and the excesses of individualism and postmodernism (Colossians 2:6-10). But we must do so in the firm faith and conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is risen from the dead, reigns as Lord, and has commissioned us as His servants to live as citizens of His Kingdom and to encourage all people to be reconciled to God through Him before He returns (Acts 17:30-31, Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). We must live so that people can see that we find community, belonging, and identity in Christ and in His people; we must stand firm in God’s answer in Christ in a world full of questions and doubt; we must exhort people to awake from the tranquilizers of society and be ready for the return of the Lord Jesus. Jesus is Lord; Muhammad is not a prophet, but a deceiver; the hope of mankind is not in violence or territory but in the resurrection. May we live so as to obtain the resurrection in Christ, and encourage others to do the same!
Ethan R. Longhenry
“There’s a “crisis of legitimacy within Islam” — and it’s fueling ISIS” (http://www.vox.com/2015/11/18/9756658/legitimacy-islam-isis), accessed 12/21/15
“Why young people become jihadists, according to a top expert” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/18/why-young-people-become-jihadists-according-to-a-top-expert/), accessed 12/21/15